Every year on Nov. 11 Canadians pause to remember the sacrifice and honour the service of the men and women in the military forces.
For West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country MP John Weston, the day is a chance to reflect on his family’s history of service in the name of King and country.
Weston’s father Stanley worked in Malay, now Kuala Lumpur, when the Second World War broke out and was eventually taken as a prisoner of war, and worked on the Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by the 1957 Hollywood movie.
Weston’s uncle by marriage was Ernest Alvia Smith, better known as Smokey Smith, was the last surviving recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest military distinction that can be bestowed.
“Both of them did things which makes me grateful I don’t have to repeat and I often think of their service in gratitude when I serve in a different way,” Weston said. “When people say my job may be difficult — I say to myself there are people who have done much more difficult things.”
A legend in his own right, Smith was born in New Westminster in 1914 and by March 1940 had enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders, joining the regiment a few months later overseas during the Second World War.
Smith was private when he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Savio River in Italy on the night of Oct. 21 and into the next morning, 1944. The Highlanders were at the spearhead of the attack across the river to establish a bridgehead on it.
Heavy rain caused the river to rise in a short period of time, meaning tanks and anti-tank guns could not cross it to support the riflemen to establish the bridgehead.
“He was placed in a position to cross the river, which then flooded, so he was separated from the armoured part of his company and with only two other individuals and confronted a series of three tanks and as many as 30 enemy troops armed with only a PIAT,” Weston recounted.
PIAT, which stands for projector, infantry, anti-tank, was a British handheld anti-tank weapon developed a few years prior to provide a more effective weapon against enemy tanks.
Smith led the other two men across an open field against the three Mark V Panther tanks, two self-propelled guns and about 30 enemy troops. One of the other soldiers manned the PIAT, but was attacked and wounded by one of the enemy tanks. Meanwhile Smith found a second PIAT, firing it on the first tank and taking it out of action.
German infantry are reported to have jumped from the tank and furthered their attack on Smith, who drove them back with his Tommy gun. He obtained more magazines that had been abandoned in a ditch for the gun and held his position, destroying the two self-propelled guns in the process. He provided cover for his wounded comrade and later gave aid to him.
"No further immediate attack developed and as a result, the battalion was able to consolidate the bridgehead position so vital to the success of the whole operation, which led to the eventual capture of San Giorgio Di Cesena and a further advance to the Ronco River," reads part of Smith’s citation.
Kind George IV bestowed the Victoria Cross on Smith at Buckingham Palace for his efforts on the Savio River that night.
“He became legendary not only for what he did, but also he was a bit of a rouge,” Weston said. “He was promoted to Corporal nine time and demoted nine times prior to his actions in Savio.”
After leaving military service in 1964, Smtih and his wife Esther established Smith Travel in downtown Vancouver. He still committed time and energy to representing the Canadian Forces and veterans at historic and commemorative events, locally, nationally and internationally.
Weston worked at the travel agency with his uncle, who he said never venerated war and always humbly said the real heroes were the ones who did not come back.
“He had the great sense of humour and wonderful way of appealing to people in a collegial manner and dignifying people for their courage, but never suggesting war is a preferred way to solve disputes,” Weston said.
Smith passed away at the age of 91 on Aug. 3, 2005 and his body laid in state of the foyer of the House of Commons on Aug. 9, making him only the ninth person to be accorded that honour. Government flags flew at half mast and he later lay in repose at Vancouver’s Seaforth Armoury on Aug. 12 before a full military funeral on Aug. 13.
Weston’s father Stanley was in part of the Federated Malay Forces, a group of Commonwealth forces that believed they could repel a Japanese invasion.
“The British strategy in south pacific vastly underrated the training discipline and commitment of Japanese forces,” Weston said. “They swept the peninsula in three months and my father taken prisoner in Singapore along with most of the forces.”
Stanley was taken to Siam, now Thailand, and was in the Kanu Camp as a prisoner of war, and worked on the railway being built between Calcutta and Singapore.
“He suffered every imaginable jungle illness including malaria and he had his appendix removed by a doctor using only a razor blade and when he was finally released in October 1945 there were no Canadian vessels to take him home,” Weston said, adding an American pilot flew him out of Calcutta to London England.
He said his father then phoned his fiancé Isabel, who hadn’t heard from him in over three years to tell her he was alive, but forgot to ask if she would still marry him.
He called again and Weston said Isabel, his mother, agreed to marry his father and told him to get home.
When he eventually arrived in Mission and she picked him up at the train station, he had her pull the car over almost immediately.
“What he said to her was apparently quite typical of what former POW said to people,” Weston said. “He said, ‘What happened over the last four years was a nightmare don’t ask me about it, I wont’ talk about it.’
“Dad said two things kept him alive — his belief in God and a desperate desire to be reunited with Isabel.”
Stanley passed away in 1981, but through his letters to other POWs and a diary he kept for part of his captivity, Weston said he was able to learn about his experiences and has visited many of the places his father was held prisoner.
Weston noted that it is also interesting that his mother worked in New Denver for the B.C. Security Commission during the war, which was responsible for the internment of Japanese Canadians.
“There was this very peculiar poetic symmetry you might say between my father, who was a captive of the Japanese in a military sense, where he was tortured, deprived of food and medications and where many of his colleagues died a hapless death and my mother her part in a civilian way was working with the Japanese in the internment camps,” Weston said. “All three were real heroes for me and certainly there is not a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t say a prayer of gratitude for my parents and their service.”